When They Called Me “Coach”- The Game at the Old Prison-School

On my first day as a Humanities teacher at Akiba Hebrew Academy in 1973, the last question I expected to be asked by my stern-faced, aged Headmistress was

          -Jonathan, what is your experience as a Head Basketball Coach?

     Here I was with my gimp leg, nothing vaguely resembling athletics of any sort on my resume, and to look at me, well, anyone with even poor eyesight would have known the answer.

          -Ma’am?

          -Excellent, Jonathan! You’ll meet the Varsity boys tomorrow after hours. We’re expecting great things! Report to the Athletic Director by 3:40. I’ve told him all about you, young man!

     I thought this might be some sort of odd initiation rite; perhaps I was supposed to smile, chuckle politely, and then it’d be over. I smiled. Then she repeated as she grasped my hand

        -Great things will happen, Jonathan!  Yes!

     I speedily wrote my three-sentence resignation letter in my head before she stopped pumping my arm and before I’d taught a single class. I was twenty-two and at twenty-two idiotic escape-fantasies still have their fleeting romance. 

     The next day at 3:40, buoyed by rounds of kids and Edgar Alan Poe, I introduced myself in the gym to Fred the A.D. who looked at me as if he, too, considered this all one big joke. But he’d just lost his B-Ball coach, he said, to a sudden, unexpected move to North Dakota (which began looking awfully good to me, too, as Fred stared). He handed me a book. It may have been about basketball. Then he said our first game was against Roman. He meant Roman Catholic High in center city Philadelphia. To my raised brows Fred said, “I know. Catholic League. You’ll be killed but think of it as a scrimmage. They’re not at our, ah, level.”

     So very right.

     I met the guys, liked them, they liked me and off we went to practice. I told them: “Men: Dribble and Pass and Shoot Around.” Seemed fine to them and they dribbled, passed, and shot around for ninety minutes while I tried to put names to faces.

     A day later we scored perhaps 18 or 20 to Roman’s 70-something. Fred the A.D. was exultant. He said we’d never broken 15 points against a Catholic League team even in a (real) scrimmage. I was he said, ‘his man’. All that night I wondered if he had been sarcastic with me but the guys seemed content on the bus home, so, I reasoned, maybe Fred was on the up-and-up.

     Next day Fred gave me our year’s schedule. Because no league would have us, we played any team who’d play us. That meant the two or three Quaker high schools, ‘alternative schools’ where boys were far more comfy with hackey-sack than basketball, and a school or two for kids with special needs.

     Time Marched On.

     After what we all thought was our last game of the season, we had, in fact, through no fault of my own, won seven games and had lost one (not including the scrimmage-thrashing we took at Roman’s hands). My guys had game…at that level, and we were happy. I was ecstatic: I repeated a mantra:

                       Seven-and-One!/Season’s Done!

     But we weren’t done. Next afternoon the Headmistress, Fred in tow, showed at my classroom door as school dismissed. Fred looked distinctly unhappy.

          -Jonathan!

          -Yes, Ma’am?

          -I have such good news! Next Monday you and your boys will play the Youth Prison School down in Delaware County! It’s important outreach!

          -Yes, ma’am.

         On the team bus with me that Monday was Fred the A.D. and among the lads were a few boys at least one of whose names you’d know (a popular sportswriter now, a guy who’s written several celebrated best-sellers.) Another’s now a prominent L.A. rabbi and professor.

     It’s what the future-rabbi did at the Youth Prison School game that I recall most from that day.

     The Youth Prison Gymnasium was all grey wire, dingy, once-beige, pock-marked concrete. I’d no idea what had caused the pock-marks but it was a cause I did not want to think on much.  Even the basketball floor was concrete, uneven, chipped, and gouged. 

     The gym was packed with youth offenders and their rather large all-male teaching staff. Each teacher seemed the size of a Sequoia. Remarkably, we held our own throughout the game because, I think, our opposition were pretty impulsive despite their having a clear skills-and-size advantage. In the stands, the student body had been more or less quiet throughout the game despite the close score.

     With one second on the clock and with us up by a point, there was a fierce scramble resulting in a jump-ball. I yelled in to Now-Prominent-Rabbi: “We’re up one! Just punch the thing sky-high! Time’ll run out!”

     Kids never listen.

     Now-Prominent-Rabbi punched the ball alright, and hard, but downcourt, toward a concrete wall. The Youth Offender players knew the game was over. They seemed unimpressed. My kid ran like a loon after that ball and slammed forehead-first into that wall, collapsed, and when the crowd looked they saw the blood that I saw, grew intensely animated and started to scream

          -Fight! Fight! Fight!…Fight! Fight! Fight!

and as I ran to my guy it hit me that what many in the crowd had really come for, aside from the diversion, was to see blood.

Guards materialised in those stands and on that court’s perimeter faster than you can say

                      CONCUSSION!

And, disappointed that there’d be no fight, filed out. Our teams met at mid-court and shook hands (although their coach, a private policeman, a nurse, and I were at the far end of the court with Future-Prominent-Rabbi.)

Future-Prominent-Rabbi was out cold, bleeding from his nose and his mouth as well as from the gash he’d given his forehead. A stretcher appeared and we went to the infirmary–smelling-salts, stitches. He came around fairly fast. Fred took the bus home with the team. I stayed with F-P-R, called his Long-Prominent-Rabbi/Dad, as well as my Headmistress, said we’d be ready for a pick-up in a few hours.

     Next day, that boy was, of course, a campus hero. He loved his scars. I loved being his “Coach”. Next Fall, though, and thank God, they hired a real one.

The school, Glen Mills, was, rightly, shut not long back. A series of lawsuits resulted in untoward findings including longstanding physical and verbal abuse of students. Glen Mills was the ancestor of the first area reform school, the Philadelphia House of Refuge which opened in 1826. I wrote my masters thesis on the school. Its curriculum was taken, nearly wholesale, by the early Philadelphia Public Schools. In the 1800s, the children assigned to the school –then in Philadelphia proper–were predominantly Irish immigrant kids. Increasingly, in the last century and in this one, the courts assigned Black and Hispanic kids to the place.
From the start, and for decades, the two institutions’ boards of directors were, peopled by the city’s more illustrious wealthy, nearly identical.

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